The awful force of the press may yet be felt

Share

On the day in 1976 when the new Prime Minister, James Callaghan, finished off Roy Jenkins's long career in Labour politics - telling him that he was not going to make him Foreign Secretary, and advising him to take the job that was on offer in Brussels - Jenkins and I had dinner together. He was then Home Secretary, for the second time round.

He arranged to pick me up at a friend's house and to drive to the Soho restaurant in his official car. Already in it were two solid citizens, in addition to him. How we all managed to fit in I do not know, but we did. Seated at our table, the two of us, I cast around the restaurant for these bodyguards. They were nowhere to be seen. Jenkins told me not to make a fuss - that they were sure to be in the area somewhere.

"But what will they do for their dinner?" I persisted.

"They'll be perfectly all right," Jenkins said, clearly irritated that the whereabouts of his bodyguards should take precedence over his own preoccupations. "They live off the land."

However, he never complained to me about their omnipresence. His successor at the Home Office, Merlyn Rees, found the security distinctly irksome. It may be that he was subject to more of it because of his previous stint at the Northern Ireland Office. Even so, the Home Secretary has always been accorded more protection than any other minister, including the Prime Minister, though here things may have changed over the last few years. His special position originated in some outrage in Victorian times. It has been maintained ever since.

In these circumstances, it is surprising that some newspapers have been asking whether the security services knew of Mr David Blunkett's liaison with Mrs Kimberly Quinn and, if so, whether they told Mr Tony Blair about it. Perhaps the answer to the second part of the question is not altogether obvious. The security services, the police or whoever may have been availing themselves of the doctrine now popular in ministerial circles: that of the sanctity of private life. But they must have known what was going on. Mr Blunkett, owing to his position, is (or ought to be) under surveillance for most of his working life and no doubt when he is in bed as well, in a general sort of way.

Indeed, in view of the lack of privacy in his life - brought about partly by his office, partly by his blindness - I am full of admiration that he felt able to embark on an affair at all. The corollary is that it could not have been continued without the toleration and, to some extent, the active co-operation of his civil servants. As Roy Jenkins gave me a lift in his car, with attendant bodyguards, so Mr Blunkett must have given Mrs Quinn several lifts in his, with or without the presence of muscular lads in bulging suits.

The officials may well have taken the view that the affair was good for their master, that in his care-strewn life he deserved what The Sun calls a bit of fun. That would have been at the beginning, or when the relationship was proceeding more or less equably, as these things go. Not so today. As Carlyle put it in The French Revolution: "Mad movements both, restrainable by no known rule; strongest passions of human nature driving them on: love, hatred, vengeful sorrow... - and pale panic over all!"

What is clear is that Home Secretaries are different from judges, in whom the principle of the sanctity of private life is not meant to apply so strongly. In guidance drawn up by a committee of judges, which was published last week, the Bench are advised to avoid any situation that might "expose them to charges of hypocrisy by reason of things done in their private life". Moreover, "behaviour that might be regarded as merely unfortunate if engaged in by someone who is not a judge might be seen as unacceptable if engaged in by a person who is a judge and ... has to pass judgment on the behaviour of others".

The rules for politicians are more flexible. Indeed, so flexible are they that they scarcely deserve to be called rules at all. The reasons for ministerial resignations, or for failures to resign, quickly fade from the public memory. Thus Mr David Mellor resigned well before Mr John Major inaugurated his "Back to Basics" campaign. He did not resign because he had enjoyed an affair with an actress about which Mr Max Clifford told tall tales to The Sun but, rather, because he had accepted a free air ticket from another lady, and the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanded his head.

Back to Basics had nothing to do with sex but was concerned with reading, writing and arithmetic. I know, because I was there, and read the speech several times later on. But in a press briefing Mr Tim Collins, in an early exhibition of spin-doctoring, confirmed a journalist's supposition that the then Prime Minister had indeed had the wholesale playing of doctors-and-nurses in his mind. Mr Tim Yeo made a Tory councillor pregnant and was given the heave-ho. Having paid his debt to society, he now adorns Mr Michael Howard's front bench.

Mr Steven Norris had more mistresses than I have usable pairs of shoes but stood firm, saying that (like Mr Blunkett) he was a divorced man who could conduct his life in any way he chose; as he duly proceeded to do. Lord Parkinson stayed with his wife (in accordance with Margaret Thatcher's advice), refused to marry his mistress and had to resign. Lord Lawson, however, separated from his wife, took up with a researcher at the House of Commons library, moved into her small house in Wandsworth, had a baby, got married, had another baby and prospered greatly until he resigned from the Thatcher government for quite other reasons. Nigel's story illustrates that there are occasions when no publicity is good publicity. For some reason, the papers chose not to write about his troubles, if troubles they were.

Mr Blunkett has not exactly been ignored. But then again, his story took a long time, in newspaper terms, to work up a proper head of steam. Even today, the whistle is muted, partly because Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers have treated him with some sympathy. No minister, however, can resist the combined wrath of The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror.

It is not an edifying spectacle. But what has edification to do with it? Is a forest fire edifying? Or an earthquake, a great flood or the eruption of a volcano? They serve to remind us of the awful force of nature. It is profitless for the papers to proclaim, as they sometimes do, that the tragedy must never be allowed to happen again, for happen it assuredly will. The awful force of the British press has yet to be deployed. It is waiting, as we all are, for Sir Alan Budd.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Resident Maintenance Manager

£50000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Resident Maintenance...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Developer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Back End Web Developer

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£36500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Elton John and David Furnish finalise their marriage paperwork  

Don't be blinded by the confetti — the fight for marriage equality in the UK isn't over yet

Siobhan Fenton
Freeman, centre, with Lord Gladwyn, left, and Harold Wilson on the programme The Great Divide in 1963  

John Freeman was a man of note who chose to erase himself from history

Terence Blacker
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'